From “Veep” to “Scandal,” “Wag the Dog” to “Our Brand is Crisis,” Hollywood has no shortage of cautionary tales about media manipulation by politicians. It’s tempting to see the plague of fake news and the ham-fisted attempts at Orwellian indoctrination — on Fox News, Sinclair stations and YouTube conspiracy-theory videos — as a malaise that afflicts them, seldom us.
“Chappaquiddick,” about the 1969 car accident that left campaign strategist Mary Jo Kopechne dead and felled the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s presidential aspirations, serves as a timely reminder that voters on either side of the aisle are susceptible to influence, especially when it’s wrapped up in male entitlement and oligarchical polish.
By the time he died in office in 2009, Kennedy was the fourth longest-serving senator in U.S. history, with the “Chappaquiddick Incident” far behind him.
Directed by Australian John Curran (“The Painted Veil”), the somber, quietly damning “Chappaquiddick” tells a middle-of-the-road version of the events, firmly between tabloid speculation and dynasty-protecting heroics. Here, Jason Clarke’s 37-year-old Ted isn’t philandering, though possibly drunk, when, in a moment of ill-fated recklessness, he flips his Oldsmobile into a pond, with a sober Mary (Kate Mara) in the passenger seat. He makes it to shore; she doesn’t. He should call the police; he doesn’t.
The real-life Kopechne’s official cause of death was drowning, but “Chappaquiddick” considers an alternate, more horrifying theory that’s become part of the incident’s lore: That she slowly asphyxiated to death in the car over several hours (during which she could have been rescued), her head above water until oxygen ran out. Later, Ted imagines the serious, idealistic Mary’s final moments, waiting for help that would never arrive.
First-time screenwriters Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan manage to give Mary a distinct personality and biography in Mara’s 15-ish minutes on screen, so that she’s not reduced to an albatross around Ted’s neck, but rather blooms into someone whose death we feel as a loss. But, of course, this is Ted’s story. The accident becomes a crossroads where he is to decide who he should become: His father’s sole surviving son (after the assassinations of Jack and Bobby, and the death of Joseph Jr. in battle during World War II) and thus the old man’s final shot at seeing one of his children in the White House again, or someone who’s going to do the right thing.
From the start, opportunity has a head start on integrity. When Ted’s two closest advisers — his cousin, Joe (Ed Helms), and a more distant confidant, Paul (Jim Gaffigan) — ask him just after the accident what’s wrong, the senator sighs, “I’m not going to be president.”
As in that scene, “Chappaquiddick” is most powerful when it comes to the words that aren’t spoken. Ted doesn’t notify local officials of the accident, so the upturned car, with Mary inside it, is discovered by the townspeople the next morning. With the “Kennedy curse” heavy on everyone’s mind — as if Mary’s death was yet another thing that happened to the family — Ted is counseled to call his mother immediately (“Don’t let her find out about another tragedy through the news”), but it’s not until some time after that anyone thinks of Mary’s family. Nor does Ted think to call his pregnant wife during the worst crisis of his career.
The script is stuffed with portentous, dual-meaning lines like, “We will persevere, because that’s what Kennedys do,” that become eyeroll-inducing as they pile up. But the knee-jerk acquiescence to the POTUS ambitions of both Ted and especially Joe Sr. (a wheezing, wheelchaired Bruce Dern in a Darth Vader-esque turn) is rivetingly revolting nonetheless. You’ll never hear the word “alibi” the same again.
Ted’s daddy issues are laid on a bit too thick, especially when he self-pityingly whines that he was always the least-favorite son of his stroke-stricken father. (“Chappaquiddick” is the rare unsubtle, yet highly suggestive, film.) But Ted’s burden to live up to the ideals his brother Jack represented to the country rings true, even if he and Joseph Sr.’s nine-man pack of waxen consultants admit to each other that the Bay of Pigs was a disaster.
Even more revealing are the film’s observations about the bubble of privilege that Ted occupied, as predetermined as his preppy pastel wardrobe. He’s referred to as “Senator” even at the beach, and a single call to his father or a lackey means a covert fudging of documents. Ted’s certainly not a sociopath, but self-protective deception is his natural instinct. As he tries on a fake neck brace for Mary’s funeral, he has to be reminded by his increasingly disturbed cousin, “You’re not a victim, Ted.” Donning prosthetic teeth, Clarke nails his character’s aura of genteel self-absorption, as well as the Kennedys’ flat, nasal brogue.
After a compelling first hour, the actual clean-up scenes are anticlimactic. But the ending hits hard, with a coda consisting of archival footage of Massachusetts citizens expressing their faith in Ted Kennedy and parroting more or less what the Democratic machine wanted voters to believe. “Chappaquiddick” may or may not be what actually happened, but it gets at enough piercing truths.